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15 June 2023

The deadly cost of nimbyism

How many children’s lives are their unearned capital gains worth?

By Henry Oliver

How many children must be made sick before we build more houses? Last year an inquest concluded that mould was responsible for the death of Awaab Ishak, aged two, and now a report reveals a four-year-old had to be admitted to hospital because of mould in her family’s council flat in Westminster. These were not isolated problems. The Independent report described a family of five living in a mouldy one-bedroom flat, and children with persistent coughs caused by mould. Landlords are discriminating against non-white tenants. And housing associations drag their feet about removing mould and rehousing families.

There is one cause at the root of all this: lack of housing supply. Houses go unbuilt while Britain’s population grows; we struggle to accommodate people. Conditions in existing housing stock get worse. How could they not? The market is tipped so far in favour of existing owners it looks like a ship sticking up from the sea, about to sink.

Labour is now proposing to allow councils to buy land to build on at a significant discount. Will this solve the problem? Sam Dumitriu has argued for CapX that this policy won’t be enough to see off the interested groups that prevent so much building. As Dumitriu says, Islington council owns masses of land and still chooses not to build on it. Dumitriu prefers the current proposal in parliament for community land auctions, which competitively sell off parcels of land with planning permission attached, thus incentivising landowners to give up plots for development.

The other problem with the policy is that it won’t let us build houses where we need them. To solve this crisis, we need houses in London and the south-east, and in major cities – in short in places where people want to live and work. The writer Samuel Watling has shown that many of the New Towns built in the Seventies are not close enough to major urban centres and to this day wages are lower in those towns.

Unless Labour can find a way of preventing the vested interests from controlling the system we won’t get homes in places like Islington and Westminster, where we need them. Instead we’ll get more New Towns. There is a huge interest group of old and middle-aged homeowners who vote to preserve their pension benefits – which on average give them a quarter of a million pounds more than they paid in – and to preserve the unearned gains in their house price. And so we restrict supply.  

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Restricting supply in this way doesn’t just make it expensive for rich people to live in London. We cram families into small inadequate conditions, into flats where mould kills them, hospitalises them, gives them chronic illnesses. Pre-school children. Children who should be growing and developing are coughing and struggling to breathe. 

For what? Preserving the character of the area. Preventing urban sprawl in a country whose capital city has barely changed size since the Second World War. Protecting the green belt in a country which has built on at most 10 per cent of its land. Using government policy to inflate asset prices for the richest generation in history.

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Take a trip through south London, from Rotherhithe to Peckham. You will see small houses everywhere, the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in the suburbs of provincial towns. Large plots with hardly anyone living on them. Masses of second rate Victorian housing stock. London is among the least densely populated major cities in the world.

The coalition against building succeeds again and again. And as a result London is becoming a slum once again, putting vulnerable people in hideous conditions.  

The economist Sam Bowman rightly says that trying to smash the nimbys won’t work: they always win. What we need to do instead is to identify the people who are directly affected by new development and allow only them to be consulted. By giving anyone and everyone in the area a say, we are giving a permanent veto to existing interests who have no stake in the process. This way, those directly affected can choose to take compensation or financial benefit from new development.  

At some point soon the challenge must be faced. If Labour or the government doesn’t follow the thinking of people like Bowman and Dumitriu to get houses built in the places where they need them, we will still be at the mercy of diffusive, busybody nimby interests.

The longer this carries on, the more it gets to be like the 19th-century Corn Laws: iniquitous legislation that nakedly protected vested interests instead of the national interest. Either we find a reasonable solution that allows us to build and build now or political opinion will continue to edge towards breaking the system. And if conditions keep deteriorating so that children keep getting ill, nimbys will face a political problem they cannot solve: how many children’s lives are your unearned capital gains worth?

[See also: The best children’s books for the Easter holidays]

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